The other day I was in Wal-Mart when I saw the DVD for Dead Man Walking, a film I knew was a true story about a nun who counseled a murderer on death row. Although I rarely ever buy a DVD before seeing it first, I took a chance on this one. And I'm glad I did. Although many people might take issue with the anti-death penalty stance of the film (which is never stated but implied), the film to me was much less about capital punishment as it was a lesson on unconditional love.
Susan Sarandon plays the character of Helen Prejean, a nun, who counsels Matthew Poncelet, a man on death row for rape and murder. Poncelet, played by Sean Penn, is not an innocent victim. He is a cold-blooded killer who refuses to face the truth about himself throughout most of the film. The film shows Helen's internal struggle with loving someone as despicable as Poncelot while trying to comfort the victims' families at the same time. Throughout the film, Poncelet slowly comes to realize the gravity of his sin reaching to a very emotional confession of guilt at the end.
The most moving part for me was when Sister Helen tells Poncelet, "You are a son of God" and Poncelet replies, "No one has ever called me a son of God before." He then thanks her for loving him. Shortly before the execution, Sister Helen tells him that she wanted to be the face of love for him as he dies. Although earlier in the film, Poncelet declares his confidence that Jesus will take care of him on judgement day, it isn't till the very end that the audience sees that Poncelet has been truly redeemed. It was sister Helen's unconditional love that forced Poncelet to face who he truly was and to receive the unconditional mercy of God.
Sister Helen saw Poncelet not for what he had done, but for who he was in the eyes of God before the world began-a child of God. Helen had an inclusive view of God's family, not an exclusive view. She understood that the work of the cross meant actual forgiveness for sinners, not just a potential forgiveness only for those who realize its implications. She saw all of humanity as God's children, even the wayward children like Poncelet. That is why she could treat Poncelet as someone who was actually forgiven even though he did not realize it yet. It is mercy that transforms, as Poncelet shows in the end. May we all learn from the loving example of Sister Helen Prejean.